Jewish communal leaders – and some members of the Jewish community – have been quick to label these moves as mortal threats to the relationship between the states, and to the local Jewish community. The evidence suggests otherwise.
Rhetoric & Reality To be sure, ANC criticism of the Israeli state has increased. The immediate cause is a decision by BDS SA -- which styles itself as the South African voice of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement and whose aim is to place non-violent pressure on the Israeli state to recognise Palestinian rights -- to focus almost exclusively on winning support in the ANC. While other local organisations which support BDS seek to influence public opinion, BDS SA concentrates almost exclusively on winning support among ANC politicians. On the surface, this seems to have paid off.
In reality, the dividends are marginal. First, the ANC may be the governing party but in no democracy does a governing party’s decisions automatically become policy and law. The confusion was best illustrated by a Reuters’ report which announced that the ANC had "decided to downgrade its embassy in Tel Aviv to a liaison office." The ANC has no embassies anywhere – South Africa does. And so the decision to downgrade the embassy would have to be taken by the South African government: the ANC can only suggest, and there are no signs yet that the suggestion is being heard.
The decision regarding the labelling of products manufactured in the West Bank and Gaza may have been approved by the Cabinet, but there is still no sign of vigorous implementation. The decision is hardly radical: it is, in fact, in line with thinking in several Western European countries and is arguably consistent with United Nations resolutions on the West Bank and Gaza. Ebrahim’s view was a personal opinion, not government policy.
In a nutshell, the centre of gravity of ANC opinion is now that pressure should be placed on Israel to achieve peaceful change. This is perhaps best evidenced by the ANC’s policy decisions to endorse BDS in 2012, and to downgrade the South African embassy in Israel to a liaison office. But that is not the centre of gravity within government and the Department of International Relations and Co-operation. And so ANC support for increased pressure does not mean the South African government is doing more to press the Israeli state to change.
"ANC support for increased pressure does not mean the South African government is doing more to press the Israeli state to change".
This seems unlikely to change soon. The ANC may loudly endorse pressure on the Israeli government, but this ultimately is a low priority and it is unlikely to fight hard against potential sources of opposition within government to these proposals.
A Movement Waiting for a Mobiliser?
But this does not mean that government policy won’t ever change. Ironically, BDS SA’s ‘triumph’ may be a strategic blunder which may be corrected by other groups fighting for Palestinian rights. The most powerful potential support for Palestinian rights in South Africa is not the governing party – it is public opinion. And this could become a potent force if someone decides to mobilise it.
On the surface, the claim that public opinion is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause seems to be contradicted by a recent Kaplan Centre study of attitudes towards Jews among black South Africans which found widespread indifference to Palestine. But this was a test of public opinion and in few, if any, countries does broad public opinion shape foreign policy. Most people’s immediate concerns relating to their own country are far more important than their feelings about events elsewhere in the world. So, when public opinion does influence foreign policy, it is typically the opinion of politically-aware and connected people, rather than the citizenry as a whole, that does so. What the ‘average person’ feels is less important on these issues than what the politically-aware think. There are no studies of what politically aware-people in South Africa think of Palestinian demands. But there is evidence that they are sympathetic. When the University of Johannesburg ended an agreement with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, arguing that the university was supporting the occupation of Palestinian land, the response from politically-aware people, expressed in public media and at meetings, was strongly positive. Expressions of support for Palestinian rights are repeatedly endorsed by local intellectuals who see strong parallels between the situation of black South Africans before 1994 and Palestinians now.
"There is significant South African support for Palestinian demands: no-one has yet turned it into a strong political force."
In sum, then, the ‘common sense’ view – that South Africa is now committed to pressuring its Israeli counterpart to change – confuses rather than explains the reality. The ANC is willing to suggest measures in support of Palestinian demands. But few of these are implemented, and those that are hardly constitute a concerted effort to pressure Israel.
South Africa may be nudged into a few symbolic measures, but at present these seem to be the limit of what is possible – unless and until someone begins to mobilise politically aware public opinion in the same way as BDS SA has mobilised ANC opinion. There is significant South African support for Palestinian demands: no-one has yet turned it into a strong political force. If someone does, the reality sketched here may well change.
But is It Bad for the Jews?
For much of the leadership of the organised Jewish community, the answer is seemingly self-evident: any pressure on Israel is bad for the local community because they believe it to be anti-Semitic. For them, the only reasonable Jewish response is to line up behind whatever the Israeli government of the day does. This approach may be immensely popular among some South African Jews, but it reflects confusion about opponents of Israel and fails to understand Jewish interests. The confusion lies in a basic error – there is no necessary connection between what people think of the Israeli government and their view of South African Jews. This is not a neat academic point – it describes reality. Not only is it logically possible for people to oppose both the actions of the Israeli government and anti-Semitism, this is what most South African supporters of Palestinian rights do in practice. This explains why we hear far more expressions of support for Palestinians than we do anti-Semitic statements. (Yes, there are anti-Semites in the movement which supports Palestinian rights – people who shout ‘Kill the Jew’ or admire Hitler. The point is that they are a small minority).
"... the reality is that there is no sign of significant hostility to South African Jews, let alone threats to our well-being, however the majority of South Africans view the Palestinian issue".
However fervent your Zionist allegiances, the reality is that there is no sign of significant hostility to South African Jews, let alone threats to our well-being, however the majority of South Africans view the Palestinian issue. (It is also worth noting that no-one in the mainstream is suggesting that those community members who are Zionists should be silenced – the demand is that they should be opposed, not denied rights).
Of course, one other reason to doubt the claim that peaceful pressure on the Israeli government is anti-Semitic is that some of the organisations pressing for it here are Jewish, such as South African Jews for a Free Palestine (SAJFP) and Save Israel Stop the Occupation (SISO). It is interesting to note that despite these organisations holding vastly divergent positions on the issue and, indeed, Zionism the mainstream communal view is that they should not exist, which is why they are regularly hounded out of communal institutions. If the well-being of the community rests on support for the Israeli government, right or wrong, then anyone Jewish who presents a different view or narrative is damaging the community’s interests.
This misreads the community’s interests. It can never be in the interests of any community to be identified with the actions of a particular government – or even a political ideology. Since no government or ideology is perfect, this means that everyone in the community is identified with the misdeeds of that government or ideology when it strays. The more a community signals that it is diverse, that it comprises people of differing political opinions and ideologies, the more likely is it that the broader society will distinguish between the political beliefs and allegiances on the one hand, and the community on the other when thinking about that community. Internal diversity, in other words, is healthy.
Reality tells us that most South Africans can tell the difference between the government of Israel and the South African Jewish community. The best way to ensure that this continues is to value, and not suppress, diverse views on Israel in the community.
Steven Friedman is Research Professor in the Humanities Faculty of the University of Johannesburg. He is a political scientist who has specialised in the study of democracy. He has researched and written widely on the South African transition to democracy both before and after the elections of 1994. He is the author of a number of books looking at issues from the South African trade union movement, the theory and practice of democracy, to his study of South African radical thought. He writes a weekly column in Business Day on current political and economic developments.